According to Lifeway, one of the largest providers of evangelical Christian resources (books, Bibles, DVDs, etc.) this Sunday, September 18, is National Back to Church Sunday.
The event was organized a few years ago when the research arm of Lifeway determined that in a given year “only two percent of church members invite an un-churched person to church” and that, if invited, “82% of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend.” That startling math resulted in a well-organized, well-executed, multi-media campaign to reach the masses.
Part of me (most of me, actually) is skeptical, cynical even, about this. An enduring mandate of modern American evangelicalism has been its consistent, persistent outreach to the unchurched. (It’s interesting that “unchurched” has replaced “unsaved” in their PR lexicon). But now enormous effort and expense are concentrated pretty exclusively on the third Sunday in September? I realize that this doesn’t preclude or deter other ongoing efforts at evangelization but still . . . it seems a little gimmicky from the get-go.
But I have to say that the two-minute promotional video has its charms.
It disarms many of the tired objections to church life:
“Church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites.”
“And there’s always room for one more.”
“I’m not sure I believe all that you believe.”
“But you can still belong . . . doubts welcome.”
The video deftly makes the point that church is not for the well-put-together, recalling Jesus’ claim that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Yet no scriptures were cited in the making of the promo; another interesting marketing decision).
And my favorite:
“If you knew me and what I had done, you wouldn’t want me.”
“If you knew me and what I had done, you wouldn’t be worried.”
The video actually avoids one of the worst trends associated with the slick marketing of Christianity, which generally boils down to “Come to church to have your needs met!” and more specifically, “Come for drums, guitars, and coffee bars!” Instead, it’s a gentle, generous, very human appeal and I can see the appeal.
But the video (and the theology behind it) leave out something important. If the Lifeway folks rightly invite the skeptical and the injured to church, they ultimately fail to convey that the therapy offered by Christian worship is “orchestrated detox” — a rigorous, continuous process of transformation: In a world of strife and endless war, the worshiping body practices the peaceableness of Christ; in an economy predicated on scarcity and lack, it assumes abundance and fullness of life for all; in a culture hostile to the immigrant/stranger/despised outsider, it offers welcome and hospitality to all.
Through the liturgy, week after week, we become disoriented to our old ways and reoriented toward the countercultural ways of the Jewish-peasant rabbi we worship. This is good news but it can feel like unwelcome, irksome news at first. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “grace must wound before it heals.”
So for some it’s Back to Church Sunday this weekend. We shouldn’t begrudge anyone’s journey from brokenness to caring Christian community. But it would have been good had Lifeway added this truthful disclaimer: Enter, dear one, at your own risk.